‘Better Things’ Throws Sam A Fake Funeral In ‘Eulogy’

A review of tonight’s Better Things coming up just as soon as I like the gay version better…

Like many of the best Better Things episodes, “Eulogy” presents several seemingly unrelated stories that are all about the same thing. In this case, it’s a subject the show has largely backgrounded in favor of focusing on Sam’s personal relationships: her long and relatively successful acting career.

We open with Sam teaching an acting class, running her students through exercises, trying to break them of bad habits, and warning them that their biggest challenge will be elevating all the bad writing they’ll be given over the course of their careers. Acting is often presented simply as this thing Sam has been doing since she was a kid, and in almost any circumstance where she’s asked to choose between career and family, she chooses family, and as a result it can be easy to assume she doesn’t particularly like or care about her profession. Instead, the acting snippets of the acting class make clear that she cares very deeply about it, and has thought a lot over the years about how to make it work from line to line, scene to scene, job to job.

That’s followed by another time-lapse sequence of her acting in a car commercial, where you can see her advice — particularly about having to elevate bad writing — move from theoretical to practical. She is there mainly just to say “Can I drive now?,” but she has a million different versions of that one line, there to offer the director whatever he wants, but she also has the patience and good humor so that she and her co-star Joe can make it through what’s clearly a very long and unsatisfying (if lucrative) day at the office without wanting to kill each other.

All of that, though, is a set-up for the story that gives the episode its title, where Sam is so offended at the thought that her kids don’t respect her career that she forces them to host a fake funeral so she can hear the nice things they’d say about her after she’s gone. The idea itself could run the risk of seeming like hack writing, as variants on it have been done on comedies for years (the Life in Pieces pilot climaxed with James Brolin hosting an elaborate mock funeral for himself for this very reason), but it works here in part because it’s treated as a ridiculous proposal — and one that makes Dukie cry twice (first at the thought of being alive without her mom, then after the second funeral when she realizes nobody said anything about her) — and in part because it’s so extreme that it pushes Max to describe her feelings about Sam’s career in a way she wouldn’t under any other circumstance. It’s not that she’s bored or cynical about her mom being an actress whose stuff is on TV all the time; it’s that she’s jealous that the world gets to spend so much time with the woman she feels she, Frankie, and Dukie should have sole possession of.

The whole thing is funny and sweet and sad in that blend this series can do so perfectly — so much so that it often gets away, as it does here, with massively sucking up to its main character. The amount of time Better Things devotes to other people telling Sam how awesome she is — as an actress, as a mother, as a woman nearly every straight man on the show wants to hit on — could run the risk of making the whole thing seem like a vanity project. Better Things not only portrays its relationships so well that it often doesn’t feel like exaggeration, but is also smart enough to show us Sam’s flaws even when her praises are being sung. The funeral’s not a great idea, as evidenced by how upset it makes the girls. Sam’s laissez-faire parenting style often results in the girls acting out and exploring behaviors they might not with another approach. Sam dates a lot of losers, but she sabotages things, too, like hooking up with her ex last week while in the middle of a relationship with Robin. So it seems less like the show putting her on a pedestal than Sam being charismatic enough that the people around her do it, even while the series takes a more clear-eyed view of her and her world.

Excellent episode, and the cameo by The Comeback alum Robert Michael Morris (who died back in May) felt sadly fitting for an episode that spent so much time talking about death.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His next book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.